To explain the origins or inspiration for Wood Green, it’s necessary for me to set a scene.
After graduating from an undergraduate degree in journalism, I spent most of my twenties working odd jobs in Sydney while writing two novels, almost back to back. Unfortunately, both of these books failed to find a publisher. So as my friends were getting on with their lives and moving forward in their careers, I was still broke, alone, and face-to-face with the reality that both works of fiction I had created were not going to get into print.
With this in mind, and my thirties approaching, I made a conscious decision to radically change my writing process. I was enamoured with the structural complexity and ecstatic imagination of Jean Genet’s novels, and my ambition was to write a book that achieved something similar. I also wanted to create something beautiful. For a long time I had believed that confrontation equalled innovation, yet with the failure of my first two books I had realised that bringing a reader close and making them feel something deep was much harder than keeping them at arm’s length with shock tactics.
Until this moment, my writing process had been to bolt forward with the narrative then go back to rewrite. However, for my third novel I was determined to work slower. Deeper. To craft each page until everything I wanted it to say had been said. Only then would I allow the story to advance forward.
Thirteen years later I finished my third novel. Admittedly during that time I had travelled, married, become a father, and stumbled across as career as a sub-editor, so I was not exactly writing all the time. But the book had nonetheless demanded an enormous effort to complete. When Astley’s Circle was finally finished I was certain that this time the writing was good enough to be published. And it was. I am still immensely proud of this book. Unfortunately, the publishing industry’s adoption of “hysterical realism” as the default style for fiction meant my latest novel was thoroughly out of place.
So that is the scene I wanted to set.
Forty-two years old with three books in the bottom drawer. My life a combination of more failure than I could ever have anticipated, debilitating self-doubt, shame, anger, frustration, panic and madness.
But thankfully around this time something fortuitous also occurred. I always try endeavoured to read as widely as possible, rarely discriminating on the basis of style, period, or culture of origin, yet for some reason the American writer William Gaddis had escaped my attention.
Thankfully JR entered my life at the exact moment I needed it most. Though written in dialogue only, the huge cast of characters and numerous settings are as vivid as any drawn using endless pages of description. A hilarious critique of the capitalist system, Gaddis’ second novel is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, not least because it is a testimonial to what writing should be.
For the past few years it seemed as if all my energy had been spent on maintaining belief in my work while faceless editors and agents passed judgement upon it. This struggle had become so huge and terrible that somehow it had overwhelmed my love of writing. Reading Gaddis, however, had reminded me of what writing should aspire to as an art form. And what dedication to that art form looks like. Publication wasn’t the point. Successfully expressing your true voice and ideas was the point.
It was like a terrible storm clearing, and I immediately felt myself recharged with confidence and ambition. I began to think about why the work of Gaddis, Djuna Barnes, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf, Jean Genet, Leonora Carrington, John Hawkes and many others, continued to endure year after year, while bestsellers and literary darlings of the media faded from memory once the marketing budget ran dry. And my conclusion was that Gaddis and writers of his ilk sought to show the possibility of books.
This was one source of inspiration for the creation of Wood Green.
Another was an interview I read with the Australian author Frank Moorhouse. In the newspaper article Moorhouse recalled meeting the women who had inspired his “Edith Trilogy”, and how she had asked him to recount the events of her life, because she had forgotten them all. I thought this was a fascinating and devastating development. Imagine learning about someone’s life only so you could tell it back to them when they had forgotten. Imagine being employed for such a purpose.
Around this time I was also completing a Masters in Information Science, which involved a large amount of theory around the idea of information as a process (not a thing); why information is avoided, and the ways in which people solve gaps in their knowledge. Exchange of information sat at the heart of these theories, and seemed to share a close association with the other issues preoccupying my mind at the time.
So one night while I was lying on the floor listening to music, allowing my imagination to wonder, I felt all three strands – writers, memory, information – suddenly coalesce into a single narrative. And once I saw it, I couldn’t ignore it.
I knew straight away I had another a book. I explained it to my wife, and she agreed. I wrote about fifteen pages over the next few days, and could already feel the book was writing itself. So I reduced my Masters to the minimum of classes and wrote in a way that combined the energy of my twenties, with the skills I had honed during my thirties.
The idea at the heart of Wood Green concerns a struggle currently occurring within our society between differing perceptions of what writing should do, and what it means to be an author.
To examine these issues I’ve contrasted two very different writers.
Lucian Clarke began his career in the early 1970s, and has lived all over the world composing long, dense, highly idiosyncratic books that have found a small but dedicated audience. There’s probably more than a hint of William Gaddis in Lucian. It would make sense after I had read JR so recently. But I imagine he also contains elements of Jose Saramago’s imagination, the philosophical intellect of Jean Genet, Ford Madox Ford’s passion for literature, Marcel Proust’s need for solitude, and B. Traven’s aversion to publicity. Lucian is a character I admire in respect to his artistic ambitions, yet he is far from a saint.
Michael Clark on the other hand is an academic looking for a shortcut to becoming an author, and believes that by placing himself in Lucian’s presence he can glean the knowledge he needs for success. This character is definitely influenced by some of the academics I encountered while completing my Masters. He is also every person I have ever met who has told me that one day they want to write a book. It’s harmless, I know, but it’s also indicative of the contemporary idea that becoming a writer is something you can choose. And that writing is a skill that can be learnt, or bought.
I know it’s easy to dismiss books about writers as self-indulgent and interesting only to other writers, but pause for a moment to consider the number of creative writing courses currently being offered in universities and colleges around the world. The tens of thousands of dollars students are paying to attend them. The writing academies being set up by publishers. The online short story courses offered by literary journals. The manuscript assessment services available. The writing retreats with expert advice on hand. Giving people hope about one day becoming a writer is now big business. And perceived by many in the industry as a lucrative revenue stream. So isn’t it worth examining what all this has to do with literature?
In an era when fiction is being increasingly streamlined, rationalised and gentrified to allow for easier commodification, isn’t it worth examining our ideas of literature, and what might be the real price that its creation demands?
Lucian has hired Michael because he needs help to remember his life. Michael has taken the job because he thinks it will result in an exchange of vital information. And both men are about to contend with the real costs of becoming a writer.
Another important objective of the book was to set it in Tasmania. I was born in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city, and lived there until my family moved to Sydney when I was nine. I continue to visit Hobart every year, and each time I return I realise just how much my imagination is informed by the place. I step off a plane and immediately feel a deep connection with the people and environment. However, I yearned to see Hobart represented in a modern context. Most books about Tasmania tend to focus on its brutal colonial past or gothic undercurrent. I’ll admit that Tasmania has an uncanny vibe, but I wanted to depict it with a little more humour, and reveal Hobart as a modern city. David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has made an enormous contribution in this regard.
I also wanted to describe Tasmania using methods other than long paragraphs of description. Australian literature has a tendency to over rely on landscape for dramatic impact or symbolism. But as an Australian I don’t engage with my country through its trees, surf and kookaburras. Those elements are often just images flashing outside a car window. How I engage with my environment is through food, people, conversation, the music I listen to, and the books I read, and I wanted to use these elements to describe Tasmania.
While writing Wood Green I was still submitting my previous novel, Astley’s Circle, to any publishers I thought might be receptive. One of these was the Pushkin Press imprint ONE. Its editor Elena Lappin was complimentary about the novel but declined to take it on. She did however put me in contact with the literary agent Jessica Craig.
Fortunately, I was passing through London soon after this, so Jessica and I were able to meet face to face. You know those conversations about books that just effortlessly keeps going, well that’s what Jessica and I had for about three hours. I told her I was about to finish Wood Green, and she asked to read it.
I was delighted when Jessica offered to represent my work. She provided some advice to fine tune the manuscript, then sent it out. The Australian publisher Giramondo made an offer, followed a few weeks later by Dodo Ink. I’ve been thrilled ever since.
Becoming a better writer, and meeting people who understood my work, has been a long and difficult process, yet without such obstacles I’m not sure that Wood Green would have come into existence.
When I started writing the book I knew there was a good chance it would not find a publisher. But thanks to my recent encounter with Gaddis I had been reminded that such concerns should always be second to the actual work. And in the end that is what Wood Green is about. Being possessed by writing. Insisting it is true to your vision. And understanding that irrespective of how much fire appears, the only option is to keep walking through it.